Global Governance
Defenders of Europe’: Threats to the World or Why NATO Carries Out New Exercises Amid Pandemic

By deploying its troops in Poland and Eastern Europe, the United States is preparing for real hostilities, but it is also achieving a wide range of geopolitical and geo-economic objectives, writes Nikolay Mezhevich, Professor at the European Studies Department of St. Petersburg State University. The most important of them is the prevention of strategic partnership between Russia and the EU, primarily between Russia and Germany, No less significant is the strengthening of the role of Poland in Eastern Europe as a strategic ally and conductor of American interests.

Security issues have a rather complicated structure, not just as a subject but also when addressed in territorial terms. The Baltic Sea region, and especially its eastern part, has been the venue for adversarial contact between the military alliance of Russia and Belarus, on the one hand, and NATO, on the other, for 15 years. The possibility of the European Union acting as a stabilising factor, turned out to be somewhat overestimated, even before Crimea’s reunification with Russia.

Today, a conflict in the Baltic region is not the most likely scenario among others, but the emergence of a conflict locally, regionally or even globally remains quite possible. The manageability of such a conflict is at the very least debatable.

The Baltic Sea doesnt simply bring to mind commercial or Hanseatic associations, but also an obvious military dimension. It should be remembered that during the twentieth century, this waterway was on two occasions seeded with rows of minefields. However, these were European military conflicts with minimal external involvement. These conflicts were terrible for the world and for Russia, but at present “Russia has won the arms race so far without getting involved in it.” Can we say this in a year?

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the US and NATO continue their military activity in Poland and the Baltic countries. They refused the official appeal of Russia to suspend military exercises for the period of the pandemic. In Poland and the Baltic States, regular large-scale exercises of the USA, NATO, as well as the national exercises of the armed forces of these countries are held with international participation. This activity continues even during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. In 2019 alone, in Poland and the Baltic states, as well as in the Baltic Sea, such exercises as Dragon 19 (Poland and another 12 countries, 18,000 military personnel), Kevadtorm 2019 (Spring storm 2019, involving Estonia and 12 other countries, with more 9,000 troops), Geleżinis Vilkas (The Iron Wolf) 2019-I and 2019-II (Lithuania and another 10 countries, approximately 4,000 troops each), Dynamic Force Employment 19 (USA, with the transfer of about 1,500 US troops to Poland), the international Tobruq Legacy 2019 air defence exercise (in Poland, about 4,800 military personnel from 20 countries), the BALTOPS 19 naval exercise (18 countries, 50 surface ships, 2 submarines, 36 aircraft), etc.

In April-May 2020, an exercise with multinational participation, Kevadtorm 2020 (Spring Storm 2020), has already been held in Estonia.

Despite the allegations that the NATO exercises and those of individual NATO countries are supposedly exclusively defensive in nature, offensive operations are practiced, and Russia is considered as an adversary. Particular attention in these exercises is paid to working out the neutralisation of the Russian military group in the Kaliningrad region, which is considered a zone of restriction and prohibition of access and manoeuvre (A2/AD  Anti-Access/Area-Denial), as well as the protection of the so-called Suwalki corridor. In the United States and NATO, they publicly express absolutely groundless fears that Russia and Belarus could cut off the NATO forces in the Baltic states from the main forces via an initial counter-strike through this corridor.

Infrastructure and organisational conditions are being created for the rapid build-up of US and other NATO countries in Poland and the Baltic states. In Poland and the Baltic countries, US and NATO combat aircraft are deployed on a rotational basis. In 2015-2019, US Air Force F-22 Raptor fifth-generation fighter aircraft (in Łask and Powidz, Poland; Ämari, Estonia; Zokniai (in Siauliai, Lithuania) and F-35 II Lightning warplanes repeatedly visited air bases in Poland and the Baltic States (in Ämari, Estonia; Powidz, Poland; Zokniai, Šiauliai, Lithuania; and Lielvārde, Latvia. Since the end of December 2019, two Beechcraft RC-12X Guardrail electronic reconnaissance aircraft have been deployed at the Zokniai air base in Lithuania, which fly daily near the borders of the Kaliningrad region and conduct radio intelligence and radio intelligence in a wide frequency band.

On October 28, 2019, two B-52H bombers from Fairford and four American bombers flying from across the Atlantic, two B-52H Stratofortress and two B-2 Spirit stealth warplanes, almost simultaneously entered the airspace of western Poland as part of the Global Thunder 2020 exercise. While in Polish airspace, the B-52H armed with long- range cruise missiles were at a distance of 1,200 and 1,500 km from St. Petersburg and Moscow, respectively (the maximum range of such missiles with nuclear and non-nuclear payload is 2,400 and 1,930 km respectively).

On April 30, 2020, despite the coronavirus, another rotation took place, and now six Spanish EF-18M Hornet fighters and three British Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4 fighters are in service and on alert in Zokniai, as well as four French Mirage 2000-5 fighters in Ämari. Compared to the previous rotation, the number of NATO air force fighters in the Baltic states has increased from 8 to 13.

On May 6, 2020, two B-1B strategic bombers from South Dakota conducted a training bombing run at a test site in Estonia. On May 11, the same bomber, after a transatlantic flight, flew near the Kaliningrad region. On May 20, two B-1Bs participated for the first time in joint air exercises in the airspace of Norway and Sweden.

There is a build-up of US troops in Poland. According to the agreements concluded by the United States and Poland in June and September 2019, there are plans to increase the number of American rotational military personnel in Poland, who number about 4,500, by about 1,000. In particular, it envisages the creation of the advanced headquarters of the American division in Poznan, the creation and joint use by the US and Polish armed forces of the Combat Training Center (DI) in Drawsko Pomorskie, the creation of a US reconnaissance, surveillance and reconnaissance squadron equipped with MQ-9 Reaper UAVs at Łask airbase, and the creation of a support group in Powidz which will provide US forces in Poland. A missile defence base (ABM) is also being built there.

The United States plans to upgrade its tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and renew its fleet of carriers. In 2022-2024, the United States plans to deploy new high-precision B61-12 guided nuclear bombs in Europe with a probable circular deviation from the target of 30 metres (for B61-3/-4 bombs currently deployed in Europe, this figure is 110-170 m). The carriers of these bombs will be the new F-35A fifth-generation fighters Lightning II of the air forces of the USA, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy, as well as the F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter-bombers planned for purchase by Germany.

On May 15, 2020, the US ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, allowed the possibility of the transfer of American nuclear weapons from Germany to Poland, which would be a gross violation of the 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act.

Summing up, the COVID-19 pandemic somewhat reduced US military activity in Poland and the Baltic region against Russia, but did not stop it. There is evidence of this in that military exercises are already being held this year and are outlined in the region, as well as on-going measures to improve the military infrastructure and the deployment of troops on a rotational basis. Moreover, this military activity is associated with the movement of troops in a pandemic era and threatens the further spread of the infection, both among the military personnel themselves and among the civilian population. In this regard, it is worth recalling that the infamous Spanish flu pandemic at one time, according to some researchers, began in 1918 at a military camp in Étaples in northern France.

The following possible developments, the probability of which cannot be accurately predicted, could contribute to the build-up of US and NATO forces in the region, particularly:

The transition to a hot stage of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and accusations that Russia is launching an armed intervention;

Accidental incidents involving ships and/or aircraft of the USA (or other NATO countries) and Russia, resulting in loss of life or serious material damage;

A political and/or socio-economic crisis in Belarus or Russia.

By deploying its troops in Poland and Eastern Europe, the United States is preparing for real hostilities, but it is also achieving a wide range of geopolitical and geo-economic objectives. The most important of them is the prevention of strategic partnership between Russia and the EU, primarily between Russia and Germany, which (the EU and Germany) are perceived as direct competitors of the United States. No less significant is the strengthening of the role of Poland in Eastern Europe as a strategic ally and conductor of American interests (including in Belarus), the use of Poland as a counterweight to both Germany and Russia, and a wedge between them.

We also point out that the US has attempted the economic and political removal of Russia from the Baltic Sea through its support for the ruling elites of Poland and the Baltic states, as well as created obstacles to the implementation of Russian geo-economic projects in the region.

Russia’s legitimate retaliatory actions in the Baltic Sea region are constantly presented as a threat, and specific military plans are carried out to prevent it. The Air Force Commander in Europe and Africa, General Jeffrey Lee Harrigan, at the Air, Space & Cyber ​​(ASC) conference of the Air Force Association in September 2019, assured reporters that “if we need to destroy, for example, the Kaliningrad IADS (integrated air defence and missile defence systems), let there be no doubt that we have a plan for this.

The United States and NATO are implementing a course called “Deterrence by reinforcement in the Baltic. Do our opponents understand that the challenges in a world that is still interconnected, much more complex and deficit-driven highlight the need to be especially diligent in following its ‘safety rules? 

Is it not obvious that reinforcements can come from the east, or that a “victory” over the Kaliningrad region is possible only through a war which will have no winners? Alas, there is no such confidence.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.